Featured Interview – John Mayall1

One of life’s biggest mysteries has nothing to do with why we’re here on this earth, nor who is responsible for erecting the statues on Easter Island, or what’s really the main ingredient in McDonald’s secret sauce.

While those are all enigmas worthy of much pondering and endless debate, they all take a back seat to one of the most unanswerable questions ever.

Why is John Mayall not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

It’s a complete travesty that one of the most important figures in the history of recorded music has not been inducted into the Rock Hall, even though he’s more than worthy of having his own wing in the Cleveland museum.

Need proof?

Just take a quick glance at some of the incredible musicians that have been a part of Mayall’s bands over the past five decades.

Names like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Andy Fraser, Mick Fleetwood and Aynsley Dunbar jump off the page at you. And that list barely scratches the surface of the who’s-who of the top-flight guitarists, bassists and drummers that have all been through the ranks of John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers since 1965.

Names that would go on to give birth to outfits like Cream, Free, Fleetwood Mac and Journey, groups that have sold tens of millions of records and give new meaning to the phrase multi-platinum.

More recently, the branches of Mayall’s family tree is also responsible for helping to launch the solo careers of guitarists Coco Montoya and Walter Trout – two very successful bandleaders and bluesmen in their own right.

Just the mere fact that all those cats spent formulative time under the guidance of the Godfather of British Blues more than makes Mayall a deserving candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Or, at the very least, he should probably be dubbed as the genre’s greatest talent scout of all time. But not only did Mayall have a gift for knowing the real deal when he saw it, he was also smart enough to let his band members do their own thing when they signed on, instead of stifling their creative abilities to highlight his own.

So just what does it take for a guitar player to catch the ears and the attention of John Mayall?

“When it comes to my choices as to who I pick to work with, it is not just guitarists,” he said. “Probably bass and drums are equally important, as it is their rhythm that propels us front-liners. In essence, it is a matter of whose original style attracts me and how it will affect the overall ensemble.”

Heck, Mayall has not even been afforded the honour of being selected as the recipient of a Grammy Award (although his excellent Wake Up Call (Silvertone) from 1993 was at least nominated).

But instead of being hung up on his exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of his lack of recognition from the suits at the Grammys, Mayall, who was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005, just continues to do what he’s done ever since the mid-60s – play his music to appreciative patrons from London to Los Angeles to Indonesia and beyond.

And even though the name ‘Bluesbreakers’ is currently on the shelf while he’s busy cultivating his solo career, Mayall still has the knack for surrounding himself with some of the brightest talent to be found anywhere – guitarist Rocky Athas, bass player Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport – a group of guys that Mayall says are, “Quite definitely the greatest line-up I’ve ever had.”

Considering those that have filtered through the ranks of Mayall’s bands in the past, that’s high praise, indeed.

This line-up can be heard Tough (Eagle Records), his most recent studio outing, marking an astounding 60 official releases for Mayall, who just turned 78 on Nov. 29.

With such an impressive resume already carved out through decades of hard toil, it would be easy – and understandable – if he were to simply just let the record company repackage his greatest hits and retire his writing pen for good.

But thankfully, Mayall seems intent on continuing to create new, original music to be devoured by his legion of diehard fans.

The reason for this is an easy one to grasp.

“That’s the only thing I know how to do,” he said. “I think it’s important for an artist to be always making new challenges for him or herself. That’s how the blues continues to evolve and remain up to date.”

Mayall, who like most creatively-rich individuals, is one that most definitely marches to his own drumbeat.

After all, just how many people have ever lived in a tree house with their wife – some 30 feet off the ground – like Mayall did as a young man?

That does not mean, however, that he is oblivious to the state of world affairs.

As evidenced by the gritty, slow blues rumble of “Tough Times Ahead” off the afore-mentioned Tough CD, Mayall is all too aware of the bleak state of the world economy these days. The song’s opening line – ‘The banks are closing daily and recession’s coming back again’ – pretty much says it all.

Conditions like those can lead to some hard choices on how people spend their entertainment dollars and when it comes to blues music, and those choices can have a dramatic effect on attendance at shows and festivals.

“I realize it (bad economy) presents difficult choices for people when money is so tight, but it’s a matter of priorities and what is important to you as a supporter of the music,” Mayall said. “There has been many a time in my life where I’ve managed to make it a priority to go see someone really unique and special to me.”

More than simply just being inspired to play the blues by its forefathers when he was a young lad living just outside of Manchester, when he was a bit older, Mayall also had the unique opportunity to back up legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker the first time that they made their way from the shores of the United States to England.

Those three luminaries, along with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, helped turn on an entire generation of Brits to the American blues in the 1960s and also may have marked the high-water point for popularity of the genre.

So does Mayall think that the blues can reach that point again and go from a smouldering fire to a raging inferno on the popularity charts in the near future?

“Probably not, as blues and jazz are art forms as well as being entertaining,” he said. “It would be nice though if the blues were more popular across the board.”

One way the blues and other roots-related mediums have managed to, at the very least, hold onto their current position in the pecking order of popular culture, is through exposure on the internet.

And although when the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album was issued on Decca Records in 1966, digital music was probably not even a thought in even the most forward-thinking person’s mind, Mayall is not shying away from technology when related to keeping his music and the blues alive and well.

“As a musician, one has to welcome any medium that will help spread the word,” he said. “Keeping up with the times is very important.”

Mayall has certainly managed to “keep up with the times” by preserving, nurturing and even updating the rich heritage of the blues, a mission he has steadfastly maintained over the past 50 years.

In a career that’s had so many indelible moments, one that captured the attention of blues lovers everywhere occurred in 2003, when Mayall’s 70th birthday was celebrated with an evening of music and friends, capped by the reunion of Mayall and Clapton on stage together for the first time in almost 40 years.

And when he announced in 2008 that he was putting aside the Bluesbreakers – ending a 20-plus year association with guitarist Buddy Whittington in the process – it looked like Father Time might have caught up with him and that Mayall was ready for the rocking chair.

But almost four years later, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

So how much longer can blues fans expect to be favoured with John Mayall’s company and contributions to the music?

“That will depend on good health. As long as I can give 100% of myself, I’ll be there,” he said. “And if the work is there and people to listen, the music will always be inspiring for me.”

And hopefully one day soon – before he decides to kick off his travelin’ shoes – the caretakers at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be inspired to open their doors and welcome John Mayall inside, a place he so richly deserves to be.

Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2011MJStringerPhoto.com

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